Powder day dreams
For Mike Weinrich, there’s only one place to go when Vail has a powder day.
“For fresh powder, the Back Bowls can’t be beaten,” said Weinreich, 38, a real estate agent from Edwards who has skied Vail for 13 years.
Others, despite the powder, the open runs and the long hours of sun, are more tentative about Vail’s seven Back Bowls, a 3,000-acre skier paradise located on the backside of Vail Mountain.
“If they don’t really understand what the Bowls are, people who come to Vail might get intimidated,” said Marc Harrison, a supervisor for the Vail Ski and Snowboard Ski School.
Though most of the terrain in the Back Bowls is for advanced or expert skiers, Harrison said intermediate skiers could enjoy them as well if they know what they’re doing.
“You have to be familiar with where you’re going,” said Harrison, who has skied Vail for 21 years.
Though she says they don’t intimidate her, when she goes to the Back Bowls, Federica Ball takes her boyfriend, an experienced skier, with her.
“I love the Back Bowls amplitude, and I like that there are a lot of options, but I wouldn’t do them alone,” said Ball, a 29-year-old advanced skier from Edwards. “They’re not difficult, but they’re not for beginners.”
Legend has it that there used to be trees in the Back Bowls. Harrison, recalling the legend, said when European settlers came through the Vail Valley, the Native Americans burned the trees to scare the settlers away.
The bowls stretch six miles from the original Sun Up and Sun Down bowls to Game Creek on one side and Teacup, China, Siberia, and Outer Mongolia bowls on the far side. The terrain ranges from wide, groomed swatches for intermediate skiers to long bump fields to glades.
The Back Bowls are what set Vail apart from other ski resorts, said Jen Brown, spokeswoman for Vail Mountain.
“They are the single most inspiring attribute that our founders Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton considered when they envisioned the ski area,” Brown said.
Though longtime locals may consider Sun Up and Sun Down Bowls as the “true Back Bowls,” all seven provide a distinct, unique skiing or snowboarding experience, Brown said.
“The Bowls are what Vail is known for and when you ask a skier or rider what their favorite run or line is, it’s great to hear so many different responses,” Brown added. “Powder days deliver some of the best memories in the bowls, but there are also many warm spring days when the snow peels in layers under your feet and you stop to look across at Mount of the Holy Cross and we thank our lucky stars that we are fortunate to live and work in such a phenomenal place.”
Though not everybody who comes to Vail will ski the Back Bowls, they certainly will hear other people talking about them.
“Earlier, we didn’t have a lot of intermediate terrain open in the Back Bowls. But since China Bowl opened, we have more blue groomed terrain there,” Harrison said, adding he would take a strong intermediate skier who can ski most of the blue runs in the mountains to China Bowl.
“Anyone who can ski Ramshorn or Avanti comfortably can definitely ski in China Bowl and some runs in Blue Sky Basin,” he said. “A good example: Poppyfields and Shangri-La, which are often groomed, and sometimes Bolshoi Ballroom in Siberia Bowl.”
For the well-seasoned skiers, the Back Bowls are the closest to skiing the backcountry, Harrison said. “But it’s safe, because we control the avalanche danger,” he added.
On a powder day, Weinreich said he would start as far east in the Sun Down Bowl, then go to China Bowl before hitting Blue Sky Basin, another part of the mountain with its own two bowls and plenty of tree skiing.
“There is probably nothing better than a run down Genghis in a foot of fresh snow,” he added. “I also like to ski the Yonder trees because the snow there is protected from the sun and the wind,” he added. “But if there hasn’t been fresh snow in two weeks and it’s gotten warm and cold at night, I don’t care to go. However I recommend doing the groomed trails in the bowls.”
Although the Back Bowls’ wide open runs are one of the things fans rave about, Weinreich said he believes that’s also why gets people lost there.
Harrison, the ski school supervisor, said intermediate skiers heading to the Back Bowls need to read the daily grooming report.
“The Back Bowls are ever-changing,” he said. “It depends on the storms we had recently, the time of day it is and which way the wind is blowing. Visibility is key, too. If visibility is poor, you don’t want to go there because the bowls are wide open. There aren’t many trees there.”
Other things to watch out for in the Back Bowls are the gullies between the bowls, though they are well-marked, Harrison added.
Harrison’s favorite runs on a powder day depend on where along Vail Mountain’s base he decides to start his day. When he takes the Lionshead Gondola, or chair 8, Harrison heads to Game Creek Bowl. When he opts for the Vista Bahn, the primary lift out of Vail Village, Harrison will ski over to chair 4, ride the lift up, and ski Milt’s Face or Yonder trails.
“From chair 17, you can access China Bowl, where I love to ski Genghis Khan or Jade Glade,” he added.
One tip from Harrison: When chair 5 is very busy on a powder day, go to China Bowl and take Tea Cup, a high-speed chairlift.
Also, the bowls sometimes close until the afternoon in the spring because the snow is frozen. In that case, Harrison recommends skiers and riders head to the Back Bowls between noon and 2 p.m. That’s when the snow is the softest.
Whether you’re an expert skier or an intermediate one, there are some things to keep in mind when heading to the Back Bowls, said Vail Ski Patrol director Julie Rust.
“Newcomers need to gauge their ability level with the terrain,” Rust said. “It’s mostly expert terrain and you also have to take into account that Vail is big, so know what you’re taking on.”
If you’re new to the mountain area and you want to go to the Back Bowls, take a ski school lesson or ask a ski patroller for information, Rust added.
While most runs in the Back Bowls are classified as expert terrain, there aren’t more accidents in the Back Bowls than in the front side of the mountain, Rust said.
“On a powder day, some people will lose their skis back there, so we help them find them,” she added. “The most dangerous thing someone can do is (leave) the ski area boundary. When skiing the Back Bowls and attempting to ski the backcountry, it’s important that they know what they’re doing, where they’re going, who they’re going with and that they have the right equipment and know how to use it.”
Federica Ball agreed that anyone heading to the Back Bowls should have a strategy to take advantage of the time and make more runs.
“If you want to take advantage of the day it’s better to plan where you’re going.”
Another thing to keep in mind: The Back Bowls close at 3 p.m., so be sure to head to the Orient Express ” chair 21 ” or Tea Cup Express to get back to the front side of the mountain.
The three-hour free guided tours meet daily at 9:15 a.m. at Golden Peak, Vail Village and Lionshead.
Veronica Whitney is a regular contributor to The Vail Trail. E-mail comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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